Sad Sinkings: Hood and Bismarck 1941, Tirpitz 1944
Posted December 28th, 2012
Reading 'Target Tirpitz' by Patrick Bishop (2012).
There's something stark about the sea battles of World War II, especially those fought in the cold waters of the North Atlantic and further north off Norway where it's even colder. Sinkings are always poignant; when they are deliberate and lives are lost they are horrific, regardless of the whys and wherefors. Some seem to capture people's imagination more than others: the sinkings of Hood and Bismarck in May 1941.
Tirpitz, sister ship of Bismarck, was holed up 40 miles down a Norwegian fiord when it (finding it hard to refer to ships as 'she') was finally sunk by British bombers in November 1944 with the loss of around 1,000 crew. The Tirpitz story is just as interesting as that of Hood and Bismarck but the latter met their fate where great battleships were supposed to be - steaming into action on the high seas, which is probably why they are more famous. Another book was written (2010): 'Killing the Bismarck' by Iain Ballantyne, that "alters our perception of this legendary episode ... the terrible reality of which has never been fully depicted in print before." Perhaps so, but the gist of the story has been known since day one. Incidentally, for Kindle, Ballantyne's book is four times the price of Bishop's.
Sea battles of World War II (I suppose this must apply to all sea battles) stand out from land battles in a few ways:
(1) Men o' War moved like chessmen on a giant board, the sense of drama heightened by the ships' strange beauty, the struggle against the ocean and absence of distractions on its vast surface, and the black smoke that marked a warship's sinister presence beyond the horizon (and for the luckless crew, its destruction).
(2) No surrender. Sea battles were usually a fight to the death and to lose was to sink, in the case of Hood and Bismarck and most of the men on board, thousands of feet down amongst underwater mountains and fissures in the blackness of the ocean bottom, gone forever, no funeral, nothing. [note: see * below]
(3) It is not as if the crews were actively involved in decisions affecting their personal fates: where to sail, when to attack, firing the guns. Most were encased in the bowels of the ships, unseen and unseeing, to survive or not survive by the immediate actions of commanders, navigators and gunners.
The numbers. Between them Hood and Bismarck carried over 3,600 men. The terrible battle that began with Hood being blown to pieces by a single shot and concluded with the destruction of Bismarck two days later has been described many times over the years so there is no purpose in dwelling on it here, though it might be worth a reminder that in May 1941 Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone in trying to prevent Bismarck from reaching the Atlantic to sink as many allied merchant convoys as it could. The loss of life, tragic though it was on both sides, was therefore less than it might have been.
A few photos, all freely available in the public domain:
The grimness of the black-and-white images is especially haunting. Their indistinctness leaves much to the imagination, but it is impossible to imagine being aboard Hood when the whole ship erupted in a massive explosion, or on Bismarck in its dying minutes. The remains of the ships on the sea bottom have been explored in modern times and they are rightly designated as war graves.
For the record: HMS Mashona (F59) took part in the final battle, coming under air attack from the Luftwaffe while returning to port on 28 May 1941 - sunk off the coast of Galway with the loss of about 48 men.
- The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood (H.M.S. Hood Association website)
- Bismarck's Final Battle (article originally published in Warship International No. 2, 1994)
- Bismarck (John Asmussen's website Bismarck & Tirpitz)
I am still reading 'Target Tirpitz'.
*Iain Ballantyne has apparently written that before it was sunk, Bismarck hoisted a black flag for parley. It was also reported in the British press (2011) that a Morse code flash and semaphore flags conveying some form of surrender were seen but that the Royal Navy was determined to follow Churchill's order and avenge the sinking of Hood.